April Femrite, founder of Minnesota-based Naturally Bamboo, started her bamboo-clothing company in 2007. She and her business focus on sustainability whether it’s through using bamboo fiber for apparel or using sewers in the U.S. to produce the clothes. The company also uses minimal packaging made from materials containing large amounts of recycled content, and vegetable- and water-based inks for its T-shirt prints. In light of the recent FTC warnings, we asked Femrite a few questions about the bamboo industry and how it relates to outdoor gear.
Why is bamboo a desired fiber for outdoor apparel?
Femrite: I personally love bamboo fabric because it has all the same performance properties as wool, and it is much softer against the skin. Some people are allergic to animal hair and cannot wear wool. I feel like these people need a natural fiber choice that is plant derived and naturally hypoallergenic. I have never come across anyone whose skin has been irritated by bamboo fabric.
How did you get started producing bamboo clothing?
Femrite: I was in between career paths and my brother came over one evening in 2007 with an article about bamboo fiber, fabric and clothing. Once I read about all the environmental and performance aspects of bamboo it just naturally clicked that I could combine my passions of owning my own business along with educating others about social and environmental issues.
What do you think about the FTC’s recent announcement?
Femrite: In response to FTC/greenwashing, I would say about 98 percent in the bamboo textile industry do not have any intention of greenwashing. Bamboo fiber and fabric has been around for several years and we have been labeling it as bamboo because that is the product that has been sold to us. It hasn’t been until recently that the FTC has decided that we can no longer use the term bamboo fabric and we must label our products as viscose from bamboo. All of my future products will be labeled this way to adhere to our government’s request.
However it is very frustrating that the FTC puts out these news alerts about “don’t be bamboozled by bamboo fabric” and “don’t fall into being greenwashed by bamboo” when they do not have any factual claims to back up what they are saying. If the FTC handed me a report that the processing of bamboo fiber is indeed harmful to humans, animals or our environment then I will stop making bamboo products. On the flip side, I don’t have any verifiable evidence that it’s a clean process. I have to take my suppliers’ word for it that they are using non-toxic chemicals and are recycling them instead of putting them into a waste stream.
How do you think greenwashing impacts the outdoors industry?
Femrite: I think consumers in the outdoor industry are still making the most of their purchases based upon functionality and performance over the “greenness” factor. Both retailers and consumers are very brand loyal in the outdoor market. A company has to make a high performing product first, and, if it has some recycled content to it, then that’s just a bonus. Consumers are getting more and more savvy in regards to separating what companies use greenwashing techniques and what companies are being ethical in their business practices. That’s why if Patagonia and Keen keep making the right products, they will always have a loyal following. My hope is that people will come to realize that we are also a company doing the right thing.
How does it impact your business specifically?
Femrite: Many people take the government’s word as truth without asking the right questions and it has impacted my business in a negative way. I spend a huge amount of time educating consumers to do their own research about bamboo and come up with their own conclusions. I tell people to ask the FTC for a copy of verifiable evidence that bamboo fiber processing uses toxic chemicals and pollutes our water. The fact is, the FTC has no documents proving any of the claims it is making. They are assuming that bamboo fiber is made the same way viscose was made many years ago without acknowledging new technologies and cleaner processing methods that have come into play in recent years.
The truth is, I have been fighting hard for a transparent supply chain, and I can’t make things better if I don’t have the support of the U.S. government, the apparel industry and the consumers. If everyone boycotts bamboo then we cannot change the way things are done and move forward in creating something that has huge potential for agriculture, biomass, construction, carbon mitigation, and a cleaner, greener fiber technology market.